Kate and the Pearsons learn to let go in a tender and wise season finale

By David Canfield
March 13, 2018 at 10:00 PM EDT
S2 E18
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We knew This Is Us was going to end its second season on a wedding. But where the marriage ceremony typically initiates a new beginning — a celebration of a new union — in this case the focus was on the end of a long, difficult chapter.

Kate and Toby’s impending marriage has been shadowed all year long by Jack Pearson’s death; the show has prioritized it narratively and emotionally. Of course, there’s a reason for this: Kate hasn’t been able to fully move on from it, nor has the rest of her family. While “The Wedding” doesn’t put an end to their grieving (it’s hardly so simple) it does guide them into a new phase of mourning, one where each family member has a chance to let go and take a breath.

The episode opens on a wedding — but not Kate’s. It’s an imagined version of the present where Jack and Rebecca are renewing their vows for their 40th wedding anniversary. These visions play out throughout the episode’s first half: everyone watching the two lovebirds, as entranced with each other as they ever were, listening to their stories about things like Big Three Homes and Rebecca’s encore performance of “Moonshadow.” The camera seems fixated on Kate through these sequences, and we learn, midway through the episode, that they’re from her dreams — dreams that she’s had every night over the past few weeks, of the moment that was destined yet never came to be.

It’s these visions that are compelling Kate to keep her father’s memory alive for her wedding day. She’s surrounded by memories, and rather than brush them away, she’s actualizing them: Jack’s urn is set to be placed beside the guestbook, she’s going to pin his old Daytona Beach shirt to her dress for her “something old,” and she’s having the wedding at the cabin where some of her fondest family moments took place. She’s still in it for Toby, of course — even gifting him the bow tie Leslie Nielsen wore in Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult the day before the wedding — but when it becomes clear that Toby forgot to bring Jack’s shirt across the country, she’s thrown for a loop.

It’s up to Randall and Kevin — the designated wedding planners — to get things back on track. They try to get Kate to calm down while they do damage control, but Toby informs them, while picking up his separated (and bickering) parents (Dan Lauria and Wendie Malick) from the airport, that he has indeed forgotten Jack’s old shirt. And we’re only a day away: Getting it in for the wedding in time seems like a lost cause.

Randall has other things going on: He’s still reeling from the dramatic turn of events involving Deja from last week’s episode; she’s now irritable and closed off, an obvious result of her mother’s official decision to “terminate all parental rights” and leave her in Randall and Beth’s care. They’re set to begin the adoption process but are scared about what the future holds. And so they play the “worst-case scenario game” that helps them through stressful times, revealing their worst fears to one another. Among the terrible options put on the table: Deja gets Tess to resent Randall and Beth, Deja goes to jail, Deja kills Randall and Beth. (Whether or not it’s in their sleep remains to be seen.)

On wedding day, Deja is introduced to Beth’s cousin, Zoey — she grew up with Beth after her mother left her at a young age, an experience Beth hopes Deja can relate to. But Deja is belligerent and disinterested in what anyone has to say. Randall, meanwhile, is trying to do patchwork. He and Kevin have laid out some replacement options for Jack’s T-shirt, including the old family baseball bat, but Kate assures them she has a better plan, racing out on an unspecified mission right after her mother arrives. She arrives at Artisanal Scoops — the ice cream place that apparently replaced Kate’s beloved Frenchie’s, the parlor she used to frequent with her father. Those ice cream trips have been a particularly dominant memory all season for Kate, so it’s quietly devastating when she learns the place has changed hands, and that Jack’s favorite flavor, banana pudding, is no more.

Kate exits the shop, again for an unknown destination, leaving the rest of her family to wait anxiously back at the cabin. Madison unsurprisingly makes an entrance, pronouncing herself the maid of honor — Kate indicated she didn’t have one — and inserting herself into the bridal search. Rebecca keeps calling her daughter but it’s going straight to voicemail. And Randall and Kevin rush to Artisanal Scoops, where they’ve just missed Kate, and stay on her tail.

As Kevin and Randall drive on, trying to find their sister, Randall introduces the “worst-case scenario” game to his brother — this time, played in reference to a wedding that seems to be veering toward disaster. Randall’s darkest fear is, to put it mildly, upsetting for Kevin. “We never find Kate and we have to tell Toby that the wedding’s off, and he’s so shocked that he has a heart attack and dies,” Randall envisions. Kevin offers up his own nightmare: that Kate returns, goes to live with Kevin, and they never find love, left to live as “a creepy pair of twins that grows old together.” Randall compliments his gameplay; the two then suffer through the notion that they didn’t protect their sister, before mutually agreeing that playing the game wasn’t exactly helpful for either of them. (Recap continues on page 2)

Kate, also on the road, finally calls her mother — who’s trying hard not to step on her daughter’s toes, fully aware of their delicate dynamic — and tells her about the dreams she’s been having. Rebecca asks Kate what Toby does in the dreams, to which Kate seems surprised, and reveals he isn’t in them. She hangs up on her mother — seemingly upset by the discovery — and pulls up to a spot somewhere in the woods. It’s a familiar spot, too: a place she once found comfort in as a girl, with her dad by her side.

Kate sits on the old stump with her father’s urn in hand, and she talks to him. She says she knows Toby is the perfect guy for her, dream absence be damned. And because of that, she has to take a step forward. She recalls the irresistible feeling of safety and fear that met her riding the town carnival roller coaster, sitting beside her dad. “I’ve been holding on to that feeling for a really long time now — that feeling of you next to me,” she says. “But Dad: I’m getting married today, and I’ve got to make room for Toby. I’ve got to let go a little now.” She opens the urn, and while we don’t see her scatter the ashes, she does tell Randall and Kevin — who find her at the location — that she “did it.” “Maybe we didn’t fail her after all,” Randall says, as the Big Three head back to the cabin.

Kate arrives for her wedding, puts on her gorgeous dress, makes newfound peace with her mother — telling her, poignantly, “You aren’t in my way; you are my way” — and walks down the aisle. We don’t hear any of the ceremony, only watching it in nostalgic, romantic visuals against the words Jack once said to young Kate. “That’s not really how it works,” he said to her after she asked if he’d marry her one day. “But you want to know the exciting part? One day, a long time from now, you’re going to meet someone who’s better than me.” He said he’d walk her down the aisle, and maybe cry a little, on her wedding day — a painful but beautiful memory that informs why this has been such a specifically emotional experience for Kate.

We arrive at the wedding party, the jovial images mirroring those of the Jack-and-Rebecca 40th fantasy. Kevin is dancing with Madison, an unnerving but thankfully misleading (more on that in a minute) sign. Deja is finally loosening up a bit. (Earlier, she had a long talk with Zoey, who talked about how she’d resented Beth’s family on her mother’s behalf when she was young, until it stopped “making sense…. to hate the people who love you.”) And Rebecca and Miguel are happily dancing in the room, surrounded by love. It’s a milestone for the family.

For his toast, Kevin puts things in perspective and guides his family out of this long, difficult chapter and toward the next one. He shares his recent conversation with Kate, who told him, “If you don’t allow yourself to grieve Dad’s death, it will be like taking a giant breath in and just holding it there for the rest of your life.” He then asks each Pearson — his two siblings, his mother, and himself — to take that deep breath and let go, as Kate promised she’d do hours earlier. In a beautiful, quiet sequence, we watch them inhale and exhale, one by one. After, Kevin shares how happy he is for Kate and hands the mic over to Randall, who offers an important sentiment: You can’t control what the future will bring, but you can control who you experience it with.

This Is Us, naturally, uses the idea to jump ahead in time for the finale’s final moments, both to tease what’s in store next season but also to reflect on Randall’s point — that things will change for better or worse, new people will enter your orbit while others exit, and life goes on.

We see that Toby, in the future, will become bed-ridden and cripplingly depressed. The day before the wedding, his parents had expressed worry about his marrying Kate, saying it seemed like he was walking on eggshells around her to keep her sane. But they also revealed that during his last marriage, to Josie, he got deeply depressed. Toby hints he may be the unstable one, and not Kate. As the future shows, this may turn out to be true.

We see that Kevin, in the future, is on a plane to Vietnam with Zoey — of all people — by his side. Zoey had told Deja she was “a sucker for a good toast,” and a good wedding toast Kevin certainly gave. They met at the wedding and apparently hit it off; in this snippet of the future, on an airplane, we see them intimate and comfortable with one another. (We’re also reminded of Jack’s military service, sure to be built out next season.)

And we see that Randall, in the future far more years in advance, is with Tess, who’s working as a social worker. “It’s time to go see her, Tess,” Randall says, maybe (but not necessarily: There’s also Beth and Annie to consider) referring to Deja. At the wedding, Toby’s mother had approached Tess, Annie, and Deja, referring to them as Randall’s three children. “You look just like your father,” she’d said to Deja, referencing Randall. It was a searing moment that shook Deja to her core; she got that baseball bat and smashed it against her foster dad’s windshield in a rage. Her damage isn’t magically going away — it may even be, as Randall and Beth so feared, one of those worst-case scenarios. We don’t know just yet.

But Randall has learned what’s out of his control. And as this tender, wise season finale of This Is Us reminds, life will go on.

Episode Recaps

NBC’s beloved era-hopping drama tells the story of the Pearson family through the years.
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  • 09/20/16
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